Merivel: A Man of His Time, by Rose Tremain

Review published on September 7, 2012.Reviewed by Erin Britton

Robert Merivel is in danger of succumbing to the Melancholy. Having risen, fallen and risen again during the gaudy years of the Restoration, Merivel’s heyday as physician and courtier to Charles II seems long ago. After having regained possession of Bidnold Manor Merivel sought to enjoy a quiet [though certainly not monk-like] life away from the bustle and intrigue of London but he fears that he has given in too easily to the anxieties and distresses of middle age. He worries that his daughter Margaret must soon leave Bidnold for good when she has decided upon a worthy suitor. He worries that his faithful servant Will is in terminal decline and that any attempt to ease the old man’s duties will lead to a servants’ mutiny. He worries about his actions in the past and how he will be remembered in the future.

Fortunately, at heart Merivel is a true bon vivant and so can’t sit and wallow for long. He determines to forcibly remove himself from his rut and sets off in search of answers to life, the universe and everything. Questions as important as these can only be answered from a real hub of humanity and so, after obtaining a letter of introduction from the King, Merivel travels to Versailles, the luminous centre of the French court. As Merivel should have known though, all that glitters is not gold and soon the squalor that abuts the decadent court sends him spiralling into despair. Things seem grim until Merivel chances upon Madame de Flamanville, Swiss botanist and femme fatale, and begins to dream of a better future once again.

Merivel: A Man of His Time is a welcome opportunity to catch up with the delightful Robert Merivel. First introduced in Restoration, Merivel is a delightful Everyman, an unlikely hero with the power to see everything – even his own more startling [and often lustful] faults – in a positive light. Merivel is charming without trying, an outrageously funny character with a knack for wandering into unfortunate or peculiar situations, he manages to be by turns frivolous and achingly sorrowful. Still somewhat of an outsider to the world of the lordly and superrich, he is a perfect guide to the fascinating world of post-Restoration England and to the court of Versailles.

Rose Tremain is incredibly good at world-building and historical recreation. Both Restoration and Merivel provide great insight into life during the 17th century. Through the eyes of Merivel it is possible to observe the decadence and hopefulness of the early years of the reign of Charles II and then the inevitable disappointment when reality sets in later on. Being a particularly observant chap [at least where his own interests are not significantly at stake] Merivel is able to see the differences in life that exist for the rich and for the poor. He has compassion, if not always patience, for his servants and actually does wish to behave well to everyone. Merivel himself is in the interesting position of being neither poor nor astonishingly rich and important. He gets to mix with royalty but is still left to question in Merivel whether he is the king’s friend or the king’s slave.

Merivel: A Man of His Time is an excellent novel. With a brilliant central character and a fascinating plot that crosses countries, visits the extraordinary and the incredibly mundane, it is thrilling reading. The more mature Merivel is increasingly prone to introspection but still finds time to engage in frivolous and often hilarious pursuits [pet bear anyone?] and so there is plenty of amusement to be found in his [mis]adventures. Merivel is an informative historical novel that is also incredibly entertaining.

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